“It takes a village to raise a child”: Insights from hunter-gatherer societies

A Mbendjele camp in the Congo rainforest. Credit: Dr Nikhil Chaudhary.

A study led by Dr. Nikhil Chaudhary, an evolutionary anthropologist at Cambridge University, reveals fascinating insights into childcare practices from hunter-gatherer societies.

It suggests that modern Western approaches to child-rearing might benefit from adopting some of these ancient practices.

The Hunter-Gatherer Approach to Childcare

The study, conducted with the Mbendjele BaYaka hunter-gatherers in the Republic of Congo, shows that infants in these societies receive about nine hours of care and physical contact daily from up to 15 different caregivers.

This level of care and attention is much higher than what is commonly observed in Western countries like the UK.

Dr. Chaudhary emphasizes that for most of human history, which was spent living as hunter-gatherers, mothers likely had much more support in childcare than they do today. This historical perspective is important because it suggests that both mothers and children might be psychologically adapted to a child-rearing system involving multiple caregivers.

The Flexibility of Human Psychology

However, Dr. Chaudhary cautions against jumping to conclusions. He points out that many aspects of human psychology are adaptable and may not be suited to just one way of life.

The extent to which this applies to childrearing is still debated, but his latest research sheds light on this topic.

Working alongside Dr. Salali and child psychiatrist Dr. Annie Swanepoel, the study, published in Developmental Psychology, suggests that children might be evolutionarily prepared to expect high levels of care and attention from a range of caregivers, not just their biological parents.

Implications for Modern Childcare

The study’s findings have significant implications for childcare in Western societies. The authors stress the importance of providing affordable, high-quality childcare that goes beyond mere supervision.

This includes ensuring higher caregiver-to-child ratios and stable relationships with key caregivers in nurseries and other childcare settings.

In the hunter-gatherer communities studied, children often had more than ten caregivers, sometimes even twenty. This extended support system played a crucial role in responding to the children’s needs, including comforting them during crying episodes, which is one of the more challenging aspects of parenting.

Benefits of Community-Based Childcare

Supporting mothers has numerous benefits for children, such as reducing the risk of neglect and abuse, buffering against family adversity, and improving maternal well-being. This, in turn, enhances the quality of maternal care.

The study also found that involving older children and adolescents in childcare provides them with valuable experience and might protect against the anxieties often faced by new parents.

Challenges in Western Childcare Systems

The authors note that in Western societies, childcare is often used to enable parents to work, rather than to give them a genuine break.

This is a stark contrast to the communal living arrangements of societies like the Mbendjele, where childcare involves a larger network of caregivers.

In the UK, for example, childcare policies, such as expanding free childcare to younger children, are seen as a step forward. However, these schemes are typically available only to working families, which means childcare is often used to free up time for parents to work, rather than to rest.

Furthermore, the ratio of caregivers to children in Western childcare settings is often lower than what is observed in hunter-gatherer communities.

In the UK, the regulations allow one caregiver for every five two-year-olds, whereas in hunter-gatherer groups, the ratio is often more than five caregivers for one child.

Despite the challenges, the study suggests that children may be adapted to having a stable set of core caregivers within a larger network. This stability is crucial for their emotional and cognitive development.

The research emphasizes that childcare is becoming a government priority, but more needs to be done. Dr. Chaudhary calls for a collective effort from policymakers, employers, and healthcare services to ensure that mothers and children receive the necessary support and care to thrive.

The study highlights the potential benefits of incorporating aspects of the hunter-gatherer approach to childcare into modern practices, suggesting that a more community-oriented approach may be key to the well-being of mothers and children.